If you have ever been lucky enough to be close to a Whooper swan night roost at dusk you will be treated to one of the wonders of Irish winters says Claire Deasy, Birdwatch Ireland West Cork Branch.
Shortly after the sun sets, when the wind drops and the world appears to take on an extra stillness, the silence is broken by a distant whooping or bugling sound, faint at first but getting louder as the Whooper swans fly closer to the water body that they will spend the night at. When the Whoopers land on the water there is a large chorus of whooping and splashing sounds, wings flapping as Whoopers greet each other and socialise before eventually settling down and stillness returns to the winter night. This is a pattern that is repeated every night over the winter period from October to April, as Whoopers are largely site faithful and return to the same communal winter roost each night, although movement to different nearby roost sites is also not uncommon, for example in times of flooding or if flocks are disturbed.
In Ireland we have three Swan species; the well-known Mute Swan is resident here all year round and the two lesser-known migrant species; the Whooper Swan and Bewick Swan, who journey here for the winter months. The Whooper Swan is one of Ireland’s very welcome winter migrants, flying in from Iceland to escape and find refuge from the colder climates of the north. It can be identified by its yellow and black bill with the yellow projecting below the nostril, as opposed to the orange and black bill of the Mute swan. The Bewick swan also has a black and yellow bill but is smaller than the Whooper Swan and has less yellow in its bill. Amazingly the yellow patterns on the Whooper Swan bill are unique to each individual with the shapes on the bill serving as an identifier similar to the human ‘fingerprint’. The Whooper and Bewick Swans are Annex I protected species under the EU Birds Directive and Amber listed of medium conservation concern. As its name suggests, the Whooper Swan is a highly vocal species emitting a distinctive ‘whooping’ or bugle sound similar to an old-fashioned car horn, hence its Irish name Eala ghlórach (noisy swan). It is considered to be amongst the heaviest flying birds with the largest recorded Whooper Swan being a Danish male weighing in at 15.5kg, although their weight is typically in the range of 7.4–14.0 kilograms and with a wing span of up to 2.75m. Whoopers make the long sea crossing (approximately 1300km) in a single flight in family parties. Many swans winter at the same sites each year, often occupying the same fields and night roosts year on year. We know that Whooper Swans that migrate to Ireland and Western Scotland originate in western Iceland whereas Whoopers that visit England and Eastern Scotland come from eastern Iceland. They stay in Ireland during the winter months (October to April) feeding largely on improved and rough grassland pastures (and to a lesser extent arable stubble) in close proximity to lakes, quarry ponds, and flooded rivers. In the recent 2020 Swan Census, 74 per cent of Whooper Swans were recorded on grassland habitats. By comparison, only 11.5–20.6 per cent of Whooper Swans in Britain were using pasture habitats in the last three censuses, and almost no Whooper Swan in Iceland are found on pasture over winter. In County Cork, the 2020 census recorded 488 Whooper swans with populations of national importance occurring at the Blackwater Callows (Cork/Waterford border). Other traditional wintering sites include Kilcolman Bog and the floodplains of the River Awbeg, River Blackwater and Bride and River Funshion in North Cork. Here in West Cork, Whooper Swans occur along the River Bandon Valley where numbers regularly surpass 100 individuals; historically they also occurred along the Argideen river valley. The Gearagh also supports good numbers of Whooper Swans each winter.
The Whooper Swans that are present in Ireland each winter breed in Iceland during the summer. It is a very rare breeder in Ireland, with records on lakes in the midlands and north-west. Like other swans, Whoopers generally mate for life.
The Whooper Swan story in Ireland is a rare ‘good news’ story, in a time of biodiversity crisis and climate collapse. Since the mid 1980s, a Swan census is conducted every five years by Birdwatch Ireland, National Parks and Wildlife Service, and a network of volunteers to count our migratory Whooper and Bewick Swan populations. In the most recent 2020 census in total, 19,111 Whooper Swans were counted in 550 flocks on the island of Ireland with birds recorded in every county. This represents an increase of 26.5 per cent compared to the 2015 census and is the highest total recorded for the species in Ireland to date. The increase in Whooper Swans in Ireland has coincided with a rise in the overall Icelandic-breeding population. Bewick’s Swans, by contrast, have declined to the point that they are expected to cease being a regularly-occurring species in Ireland. Only 12 Bewick’s Swans were recorded in Ireland in the 2020 census, mostly in Wexford. This compares with historical times when Ussher and Warren (1900) found Bewick’s Swans more numerous and widespread than Whooper Swans in Ireland. One of the potential reasons that the species has declined in Ireland is that Bewick’s Swans find suitable sites to winter in Germany, Netherlands and Britain, and due to warming winters and climate change no longer need to fly as far west as Ireland.
The Whooper Swan has long since been a creature of intrigue and admiration; it features in Irish myth and legend, most notably in the story of the Children of Lir. W.B Yeats Poem ‘Wild Swans of Coole’ is thought to be inspired by the Whooper Swans that frequent Coole Lough in Co. Galway, indeed Coole Lough remains an important site for Whooper Swans to this day. The saying ‘Swan Song’ refers to an ancient belief that swans sing a beautiful song just before their death and its reference can be found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and later Shakespeare. The Whooper Swan may be at the source of this, as it has an additional tracheal loop within its sternum, which enables it to produce the resonant honks which give the bird its name. When it dies, its lungs collapse making a series of long, drawn-out soft running notes and scientists have proposed that this is likely to be the basis of famous ‘Swan Song’ saying of old!
BirdWatch Ireland West Cork Branch News
Upcoming outings being held by the Branch are:
Sunday, January 28:
West Cork bird race
Sunday, February 11:
Gulls & Divers in Bantry
Visit our website www.birdwatchirelandwestcork.ie for more information about these events. To receive news and reminders about our events, join our mailing list by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the Branch, contact Fiona O’Neill at email@example.com.